Published Monday, February 25, 2013
By RAY HENRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Lobbyists spent about a third less money on Georgia's state senators in the month after the chamber imposed limits, though it remains unclear whether the new rule alone can be credited for the change.
An analysis of spending by The Associated Press shows that lobbyists spent more than $91,300 on Senate lawmakers in the one-month period after the Senate passed its rule on Jan. 14, a decrease of roughly 35 percent compared with the same period last year. The spending tally includes lobbyist expenditures on individual state senators, groups of senators and events open to all lawmakers in the General Assembly.
The new Senate rule, adopted the first day of the session, generally prohibits state senators from accepting lobbyist gifts worth more than $100, though it leaves exceptions. The AP's review showed that the number of lobbyist expenditures worth more than $100 in the Senate dropped to 86 during the first month of the session, down from a total of 153 during the same period last year.
Spending tallies derived from lobbyist reports should be viewed as broad indicators, not exact sums. Lobbyists self-report their spending, and reports are rarely audited for accuracy. Mistakes in the reports or variations in the spelling of a politician's name or title can throw off automated calculations. Despite those limitations, the math shows that spending is down.
State Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, called the new rule "the No. 1 driving force" in the drop in spending. "Certainly I think the passage of the rule is contributing to an overall change of culture, which is really what we're after," said McKoon, a leading proponent of limiting lobbyist spending.
Other factors may be at work, too, including public attitude. Last summer, roughly 81 percent of Georgia voters voted in favor of limiting lobbyist expenditures in nonbinding questions on the Republican and Democratic primary election ballots.
Also last year, Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, was fined $5,000 for illegally accepting pay for in-state official work and travel on some days when lobbyists reported wining and dining him out of state. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, ran into criticism after a lobbyist paid $17,000 in 2010 to take him, his family and two others on a trip to Europe. Both Balfour and Ralston won re-election.
Ralston, who criticizes the Senate prohibitions as weak, has proposed his own prohibition on lobbyist spending on individual lawmakers. His plan, too, has exceptions to the basic rule.
"More and more you're seeing those who are either reducing or not accepting gifts, and it's had an effect on the behavior of the lobbyists," said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, one of several organizations backing limits on lobbyist spending.
No senator appears to have violated the new Senate rule in the month since it took effect. But several received gifts just before the tighter limits took hold.
The University System of Georgia reported on Jan. 1 spending $1,365 to send Sen. Frank Ginn to the Capitol One Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Ginn said he refunded the money after the Senate passed its new rule. The day before the Senate rule took effect, Sen. Tyler Harper accepted a $158 ticket to a Falcons game, according to lobbyist reports. Harper said he had intended to pay for the ticket and reimbursed the sponsor after the game.
Lobbyists can still get around the rule. They can pay as much as they want to send senators on junkets if the events are tied to a lawmaker's official duties.
And the $100 limit does not apply to events where all state lawmakers or members of committees or caucuses are invited. For example, a lobbyist for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Georgia reported paying roughly $370 as part of a dinner for the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.
A lack of detail on the lobbyist reports makes it difficult to verify whether the new rules are strictly observed. Mercer University paid nearly $900 as part of annual meal for Senate leaders, though it did not list how many lawmakers were there. Mercer spokesman Larry Brumley said about 20 people attended the meal, though he did not have an exact count.
"I would doubt very seriously if there was any danger of anyone going anywhere near that limit," he said of the $100 per-legislator cap.
Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.